NUKE APPEAL: Why Russia Won’t Give Up the Bomb


While the United States emphasizes reduced reliance on nuclear weapons, the Russian Federation continues to stress the importance of its nuclear arsenal in its national defense strategy.

In order to provide a better understanding of the establishment and development of Russian nuclear doctrine, it is important to understand the events which prompted and contributed to the conception of the doctrine as developed. The Soviet Union’s nuclear activities began basically as intelligence collection and research against the United States, spying on its nuclear activities. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in WWII, nuclear research was all but suspended. “It was intelligence relating to the Maud Report in the United Kingdom, and concerns that Nazi Germany had an atomic project, that eventually led to the reestablishment of soviet nuclear research in 1943.”

The dropping of atomic bombs on Japan by the United States prompted the Soviet Union to accelerate and emphasize its nuclear weapons program. After the end of Stalin’s regime the Soviet military took control of the weapons program. At this point, both the United States and Soviet Union realized the potential destructive power of nuclear weapons and neither wanted to use them in war as an active strategy of first resort. Despite this, the Soviets understood the advantages that the possession of nuclear weapons gave them and used them to try and achieve military and diplomatic objectives. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the United States proposed a freeze on the number and type of US and Soviet strategic nuclear vehicles, the amount of which would be negotiated with the Soviet Union. This first attempt at the regulation of nuclear weapons failed. It was launched on a multilateral forum, at the Geneva-based Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC), and failed because the US stockpile far exceeded that of the Soviets, so the Soviets refused to be party to the talks. In 1966-67, the United States and Soviet Union began nuclear talks about the deployment of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defenses, strategic offensive and strategic defensive weapons. The result of these talks was the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968.

Both the United States and Russia today are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s objective is to “prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament. The Treaty represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States.” The NPT entered into force in March of 1970 and 190 countries are now signed on to it. In 1995, at the Review and Extension Conference, the treaty was extended indefinitely but is still reviewed every 5 years.

Shortly after the NPT entered into force the Soviet Union and the United States began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I), which ended in 1972 with the production of two treaties dealing with offensive and defensive arms: the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Interim Agreement on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty placed limits on national missile defense systems. The Interim Agreement on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms was to limit the amount of Strategic Offensive weapons on both sides of the conflict. It was only designed to be in place for five years, as a complement to the ABM treaty. SALT II followed SALT I and reduced the amount of strategic delivery vehicles to 2,250 for both sides. Both sides honored the treaty until 1986, when President Reagan declared that the Soviets had violated the treaty. One of the last treaties regarding nuclear weapons signed before the fall of the Soviet Union was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, which removed the entire category of weapons, nuclear and conventional, with ranges of 500km-5,000km for both the United States and the Soviet Union.

START I was followed by START II, and though it was signed in 1993 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, START II never went into force, due to Russian concerns about the United States’ withdrawal of the ABM treaty. START II aimed to limit the amount of warheads to between 3,000-5,000 warheads for each country. Work on START I and II paved the way for the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), signed in May 2002, which demanded that each side reduce their strategic nuclear weapons to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the end of 2012.

The main strategic defense planning document for the Russian Federation on the heels of this nuclear history is the 2010 Military Doctrine. This doctrine states that “the Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat.” The 2010 Military doctrine was amended in 2014 to include a section about conventional weapons threatening the existence of the state, but the Minister of Defense at the time, Igor Sergeyev, assured that the condition didn’t change the overall intent of the doctrine. According to Article 22, the 2010 Military Doctrine is only retaliatory, not preventive. The wording of this section of the military doctrine mirrors that of the U.S., British, and French nuclear strategies during the Cold War, which allowed for a first-strike nuclear attack. In actuality, Russian doctrine was changed to allow for a first-strike only in the early 1990s. Though some interpret this new clause to be aggressive, Dvorkin gave an alternate and astute interpretation in that ‘the unchanged conditions for nuclear weapons use and the description of their role in ensuring Russia’s and U.S./NATO security fifteen years after the end of the Cold War reflects the fact that the principles of mutual nuclear deterrence have not been altered, although these principles are useless in counteracting new challenges and threats.”

Russia and the United States have two separate nuclear ideologies – while the U.S. proclaims to advocate for less reliance on nuclear weapons, the Russian Federation promotes their importance in its military strategy. In addition to new rhetoric, Russia has increased efforts to improve the capability of its nuclear arsenal, in an attempt to try and keep up with the capabilities of the United States. This disbalance has always been a major sticking point for the Russian Federation: it thinks it is easy (and insincere) for the United States to proclaim the ‘lack of reliance’ on nuclear weapons when the US easily outpaces all countries around the globe in terms of nuclear quantities. It means, to the Russians, that the Americans are ‘diplomatically aggressive’ about nuclear restraint while knowing it has a secret hammer hidden behind its back if ever necessary. A hammer that is far bigger and heavier than everyone else’s hammer.

The strategic nuclear policies of Russia and the United States are subject to change as time goes on and the security situation changes. Despite their long history of attempting to regulate nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia continue to alter their nuclear strategies to account for changes in the international security environment and changes with their political relationship with each other. Russia will continue to emphasize the importance of its strategic nuclear weapons to provide for the defense of the Russian Federation, as it continues to be distressed at how much the United States outpaces all others in terms of nuclear holdings. Proclamations of peaceful intent are always moot to the Russians when they can physically quantify the destructive power of the adversary’s arsenal. Deterrence may indeed be a good thing. But absence of nuclear capability is far safer to Russia than absence of malicious intent. This is the area of engagement, an attitudinal one, which the United States needs to do a much better job of when it comes to working with the Russian Federation.


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